Monday, October 29, 2012

Why Not Fifty Shades of Gray

My mother-in-law loves cats.  My father-in-law is a dog person.  

Like oil and water, the two simply don't mix.  They may appear to come together for a brief moment, but wait a few minutes, and they're back on their side of the beaker.

When Opa is working in one of the barns or taking his morning walk down the length of our quarter-mile driveway, his pack of five large dogs follows him away from the house, making room for Oma's seven cats to freely walk in the open without the fear of being chased (or worse).

Yet, as soon as the dogs return, the cats scatter, some high atop the red Dodge farm truck, some to the pump house, and others into the woods.  

Even though they've all lived on the same farm for years, they still can't co-exist together, at least not in such a great number.  It's always one or the other greeting me when I walk down, never both.

This is the image that came to mind when reading Ezekiel 8 this week, the chapter where God explains why His presence is leaving the temple in Jerusalem.

Even though "the glory of the God of Israel was there" still in the temple of Jerusalem, those left behind after the deportation and exile to Babylon hadn't learned their lesson.  Instead, they ignored God like never before, worshipping their own idols and defiling His holy sanctuary (v.4).

Ezekiel states, "Then He said to me, 'Son of man, raise your eyes now toward the north.' So I raised my eyes toward the north, and behold, to the north of the altar gate was this idol of jealousy at the entrance. And He said to me, 'Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations which the house of Israel are committing here, so that I would be far from My sanctuary?'" (v. 5-6). 

This idolatry, this sin was causing God to "be far from" His people.   

It wasn't a foreign power, not King Nebuchadnezzar and his mighty armies.  No.  Sin was expelling God from His holy sanctuary just as sure as sin expelled the people from the land of Israel.

Holiness simply cannot continually dwell in the presence of evil. 

In the rest of the chapter, God outlines the abominations of Israel.  There is an idol at the temple court's entrance, idols worshipped in secret, idols carved on the walls, women worshipping a false god, and even men turning their back on God's holy place to worship the sun in the temple's inner court.

This wasn't just one who had turned from God.  All had sinned.  All were worshipping other idols.

Yet, God saw what idols they had carved in their inner closets, those hidden behind secret panels that no one else could find.

God knew.  And God still knows today.

The sin that separated Him from His people back them still separates Him from you and me until we are covered by the blood of Christ.

His presence cannot reside where continual sin flourishes and thrives, unashamed, unchecked, unrepented.
Two chapters later, Ezekiel describes God slowly leaving the temple until "The glory of the LORD went up from the midst of the city and stood over the mountain which is east of the city" (Ez. 11:23).

That was it.  God's holy presence would no longer reside with sinful man until the time for Christ would be come.

Sin is that serious.  Even what we may rationalize away as "little white sins" are that divisive.

This side of the cross, Christ resides in the hearts and souls of men and women versus a physical temple.  Still, though, Paul repeatedly tells us in Romans that holiness and sin cannot dwell together.   We can either worship in spirit or in flesh, serve one master or another (Rom. 6).

If our lives are characterized by continuous sin and worship of anything that causes us to compromise God's holy standards, we need to really examine our hearts to see if we have ever truly repented and turned to serve Christ.  Yet, even if we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, continuous, unchecked sin in our lives can still divide us from the power of Christ within us.

It's time to look at our souls as oil or water, black or white, not fifty shades of gray.

Image: Cool science experiment found here

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What Does a Watchman Really Do?

Thoughts of an old graduate school friend have consumed me of late.  He is the "one that got away," but not in the way you might think.

Of all my friends from that part of my life, he is the only one whom I spent hours with, having  serious, consistent conversations about God.  I stumbled over myself at every turn, and I knew it, but I never gave up hope, never stopped praying that one day, God would move his heart, help him get past the intellectual stonewall of rationalism and accept Christ and the Bible by faith.

It never happened.  

That was thirteen years ago.  And the state of his soul still haunts me like my shadow tall beside me each morning.

The last time my friend and I met for coffee, I was newly married, teaching, and putting my husband through law school.  I learned he had moved back from Chicago after a failed stint in film school and a failed long-term relationship.  His brother had recently died.  Suicide.  His sister was still absorbed in dance.

I cried after we parted that day.  All the old defenses, all the intellectual banter to keep me at a distance were still there.  Visiting with him was just so...sad

Wherever he is, he is in his early forties, closer each day to meeting his maker.  Every now and then, I still awake from a dream of rounding a corner and bumping into him again, of trying once more to share the love of Christ with him.  But it's only just a dream.

What do you do, then, when someone from your past burdens your heart? When you want more than anything to share Christ with them, but time, distance, or the unknown separate you?

And what of the Great Commission in Matthew 28 that tells us to "go and make disciples of all nations" (v. 19)?  Sometimes, the going is made impossible by responsibilities that keep us firmly planted here at our specific latitude and longitude.  What then!?

Are we still called to be God's watchmen who stand upon the wall?

In the book of Ezekiel, God reveals a great deal about being God's watchman, not "to the remotest part of the earth" where I tend to think is most important but "both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria" (Acts 1:8).

I'm speaking of being God's messenger at home

When God appointed Ezekiel as a watchman, He described one part of the prophet's job description: just speak: "Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman to the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from My mouth, warn them from Me" (Ez. 3:17).

This doesn't sound anything out of the ordinary--to speak the Word of God, all the Word of God, leaving nothing out.  The prophet Jeremiah was admonished in the same way.

But then God goes further, explaining, "Moreover, I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be mute and cannot be a man who rebukes them, for they are a rebellious house.  But when I speak to you, I will open your mouth and you will say to them, 'Thus says the Lord GOD'" (Ez. 3:26-27).

Some scholars believe Ezekiel literally became a mute, unable to speak unless God placed words within his mouth.  If true, it's a poignant lesson for us about what we should say and not say--God's Word and His Word alone.

A few verses earlier, God gives a second job description: "He spoke with me and said to me, 'Go, shut yourself up in your house'" (Ez. 3:24).  GO HOME.

What?  Weren't watchmen to go out, stand on the highest wall, maybe wait for an audience, and then spill forth God's Word?  How else was Ezekiel to warn others if he was sitting at home!?

Yet, go home, Ezekiel went.  And the people began coming to him.  In chapter 8, Scripture records, "I was sitting in my house with the elders of Judah sitting beside me" (v. 1).  In chapter 14, Scripture says, "Then some elders of Israel came to me..." (v. 1).  And again, in chapter 20, "certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the Lord, and sat before me" (v. 1).

Again and again, God brings to Ezekiel those who need to hear the message.  God gives the Words. God opens Ezekiel's mouth.  All Ezekiel has to do is then speak.

Please understand that I'm not saying God doesn't expect us to share the gospel with the entire world.  Yet, sometimes, I think we get so caught up in the belief that we are only serving as good little watchmen for the Lord if we are spreading salt and light on foreign soil.  I think we get caught up in the belief that if we don't see thousands saved, we're doing a poor job.

Being a watchman means one thing--being God's messenger, sharing all the Word of God, both in and out of season, period.

Yes, it's antithetical to our American mentality of numbers, statistical analyses, and success at all costs, but if others won't listen, it matters not.  We cannot simply change the message to give it mass appeal.  A watchman is a messenger, not a savior. 

And if we are prohibited from going to those who need to hear, that fact does not inhibit God in the least.  God can and will bring them to us.

You and I who are in Christ must believe that.  We must start perceiving ourselves as important watchmen in our own Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria--our city, our state, our country.

Considering the reach of the Internet, radio, and television in our present time, being a watchman at home may be more important than ever before.

There's no telling what God can accomplish through you...all from your own doorstep.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Avoiding Ceaseless Pursuits

In early 2009, my sister by marriage sent me a Newsweek article entitled "Generation Diva: How Our Obsession with Beauty is Changing our Kids".  According to the article, the lie society preaches that you are not “beautiful enough” is ensnaring younger and younger children; the statistics are alarming—14% of Botox injections are for 19 - 34-year-olds; cosmetic surgery numbers have doubled for those 18 and under; and American 8 – 12-year-olds alone spend $40+ million per month on beauty treatments. In fact, the average girl today will have spent “$300,000 on just her hair and face” by the time she is 50.

The article also quoted writer Susie Orbach's new book, Bodies: "good looks and peak fitness are no longer a biological gift, but a ceaseless pursuit. And obsession at an early age, she says, fosters a belief that these are essential components of who we are—not, as she puts it, 'lovely add-ons.' It primes little girls to think they should diet and dream about the cosmetic-surgery options available to them."

I have a young daughter, and this scares me.  

What a horrific lie Satan is dispersing through advertising, TV shows, magazines, radio— like a strong wind blowing seeds across the continent, each seeking to take root in young (and not so young) minds to grow into a monstrous, thorny obsession.

Yet, our gracious God knew many people would have self-esteem problems, so He caused His servant, David, to pen words about how beautiful we are to Him: “I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:14-15, my Italics). Did you hear that? God’s “skillful” hands crafted you into something He considers “wonderful.” What plastic surgeon could possibly be more skillful than our God?

Perhaps, though, you are not be caught up in Satan’s lie that you are not “beautiful enough.”  Satan encourages Christians and non-Christians alike to grab hold of other "ceaseless pursuits" because of being led to believe they are “not enough” by society’s standards. In present-day America, several obsessions instantly spring to mind.

One is the lie that you’re not good enough to keep your job in this economy. 

Satan says that there are so many other people smarter than we are who could do our job so much better. The result? One, we make our job an obsession, ignoring all other aspects of our lives and families. Or, two, we obsessively worry all the time about being laid off or downsized.

Either way, we are ignoring God’s command in Matthew 6:25-27: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

Does God promise we won’t lose our jobs? No, but He does promise to care for us in those times.

Another is the lie that you're not a good enough mother or father.

Satan whispers that if we don’t sacrifice everything for our child, don’t send him to a certain school, don’t involve her in certain sports, don’t give him this particular educational toy, then we’re ruining her chances for a successful future.

Consequently, we make our children our god, spending all week, including the Sabbath, giving them every advantage we can possibly squeeze in and teaching them that they are #1 in life. Not only does this make them ill-prepared for reality, but worst of all, it means we place them before God. Even in the Old Testament, God said, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

The list could go on. The point is that ANY time we believe that we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough, not _____ enough (you fill in the blank), we lose the confidence we need to be the best witness for Christ and we cease trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit within us.

Yes, alone we are never enough, but if it is something Christ calls us to, we are always enough. Instead of holding on to this truth, though, we take our eyes off Jesus and obsess about something temporal, not something everlasting.

In a sense, we become like Peter who believed enough in Jesus to get out of the boat and even, for a time, to successfully defy the laws of physics and walk on the water. But then, “when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:30-31).

Was Peter “enough” on his own? Of course not. He needed Jesus. But, like Peter, we doubt ourselves, and so we needlessly obsess over things that aren’t worthy of our thoughts. But we are enough in Christ! In Christ, we are beautiful enough, smart enough; if we give Him our children and our marriages and seek to live up to His standards and not the world’s standards, we can be good enough parents and spouses.

Whatever lies Satan and the world are whispering in your ears, whatever obsessions you have waiting in the wings or that you are actively pursuing, they will diminish your confidence, power, and energy to live for Jesus.

The next time you have one of those “I’m not _____ enough” days, God has a Word to directly oppose that lie. He wrote it long ago and preserved it especially for you, for that specific moment when He knew you’d be needing to hear some Godly truth. If no Scripture springs to mind, find an Online Bible Concordance where you can look up a keyword. God has an answer to every lie Satan seeks to plant in your mind.

Seek that answer so the lie doesn’t take root.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities: A Century's Difference

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."

These oft quoted words open Charles Dickens' 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities.

Yet, when I consider them, I don't think of London and Paris. Instead, I think of one city found in the pages of Scripture that is truly a tale of two cities.

One city full of contradictions. One city of opposites going in two different directions.

Twice, Old Testament Scripture addresses at length the pagan city of Nineveh. Yet, the city's two prophesies and two responses to those prophesies are vastly different.

First, there was Nineveh's encounter with Jonah, a reluctant prophet if ever there was one.

Although four chapters in length, the entire book of Jonah isn't actually Jonah's prophecy to Nineveh. The bulk of the four chapters is Jonah's avoiding God. In fact, save for one verse where God tells Jonah to go tell Nineveh it will be destroyed for its wickedness, the first two chapters are all about Jonah--a quick trip out to sea in the opposite direction, a storm, three days in the belly of a great fish, and (finally), a grudging acceptance of his commission.

In chapter three when Jonah finally reaches the city, Scripture says, "Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days' walk. Then Jonah began to go through the city one day's walk; and he cried out and said, 'Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown'" (Jon. 3:4).

This must be the shortest sermon in history. One sentence. Eight words.

To complete a three-day's walk in one day is no small feat. I can imagine Jonah running breathless through the city like one of those crazy-sounding street-corner preachers who repeatedly proclaim, "The end is near!!!"

But what's even stranger is that Nineveh responded to this hasty message--not a little, but in a big way: "Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, 'In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish'" (Jon. 3:5-9).

Measly little sermon. HUGE response of repentance.

Compare this city of Nineveh with the Nineveh just a century later during the time of the prophet Nahum.

This time, there is no evidence that God's prophet reluctantly wrote down his prophecy concerning Nineveh. This time, the bulk of the prophecy isn't about the prophet's own problems with obeying God's commands. And this time, the message isn't a one-sentence generic doomsday message.

Instead, Nahum's prophecy is hard-hitting and exceedingly detailed concerning the exact nature of Nineveh's destruction. Nahum says, "She is emptied! Yes, she is desolate and waste! Hearts are melting and knees knocking! Also anguish is in the whole body And all their faces are grown pale!" (Nah. 2:10). Additionally, he warns, "Your name will no longer be perpetuated. I will cut off idol and image From the house of your gods. I will prepare your grave, For you are contemptible" (Nah. 1:14).

In the NASB, the prophecy is 1,185 words long. A thousand words compared to Jonah's eight.
Yet, strangely, there is no evidence of Nineveh's repentance. There is no evidence that even one repented.

When Joshua destroyed the city of Jericho, Scripture describes the one woman who supported God's chosen people instead of the wicked in her own city. As a result, "Rahab the harlot and her father’s household and all she had, Joshua spared; and she has lived in the midst of Israel to this day, for she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho" (Jos. 6:25).

Logically, if God found it important to remember in Scripture one person who chose God's people over wickedness....surely He would have described the one or many who repented upon hearing Nahum's message.

But nothing. Not one story.

One thousand words fell on deaf ears and hardened hearts full of pride and arrogance.

History bears out Nahum's prophecy of Nineveh's utter and complete destruction. In fact, it was the Victorian time period before Nineveh's location was even rediscovered from under its tomb of sand.

In only one century, this city went from an entire population kneeling in repentance to none repenting.

What happened? What made the difference?

It wasn't the length or compelling descriptiveness of a message. It wasn't the preacher. No, the difference was the people's hearts. The difference was one century. One generation.

The people who repented during Jonah's day, who had heard God's judgment and seen God's relenting--those people were long gone. Sadly, they had apparently failed to pass along to the next generation their own personal fear of Jehovah God. Instead, they passed on merely their growing military power, their cruelty, their wickedness, and their pride.

And for that lack of re-telling about Jehovah to their children and their children's children, the next generation was annihilated.

It is not far-fetched to say that America is one generation away from being a Nineveh.

It's about you and me, about our passing on to the next generation a love, fear, and reverence for a holy God.

If we don't, who will tell them?

(With thoughts of our nation's election right around the corner, this post from the archives seemed a poignant reminder of how important it is for us to be that one generation who holds up a nation.)

(Image: Nineveh. Nebi Yunus. Iraqi archaeologists excavate the monumental entrance to a late Assyrian building. The large head of a bull-man sculpture lies in a passageway. Photo taken in May 1990 by Fredarch.)